The Island’s own Christopher Kann makes his living as a carpenter here on the Vineyard. But the 35-year-old is also a consummate actor and he just returned from playing 1940s and 50s baseball legend Bob Feller in a first-run production of a new play in New Brunswick, N.J.
The play is “Kansas City Swing” at the Crossroads Theatre Company, which won a Tony award for best regional theater in 1999. The year is 1947. Jackie Robinson has been called up to the majors as the first black to integrate the all-white leagues. At the time, Bob Feller, playing for Cleveland, was the highest paid player in professional baseball. Some say he was the best pitcher of all time.
Satchel Paige, consigned to the all-Negro league because of his color, was Bob Feller’s counterpart, also considered by many to be the best pitcher of all time. Paige feels disrespected that he wasn’t called up. The two develop a friendship while competing against each other on traveling all-star teams.
Mr. Kann, a member of the actors union Actors Equity, took on the part of Feller at The Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven in a staged reading of the play at one of the Playhouse’s Monday Night Specials during the summer of 2012. MJ Bruder Munafo, executive artistic director and producer at the Playhouse, has worked with Mr. Kann since he was a teenager, and she recommended him for the part.
The play was written and produced by the team of Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, who also co-wrote the play “Fly,” a 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black fliers in the U.S. military during World War II. “Fly” had a successful run at The Playhouse in June 2009 before the final version had its world premiere at the Crossroads Theatre later that year.
Mr. Khan, liking what he saw during the reading, invited Mr. Kann to reprise his role as Bob Feller in New Jersey.
Mr. Kann spent six weeks with the production, three long weeks of rehearsals, mostly at the National Black Theater in Harlem, where he said rehearsals were six days a week and 10 hours a day, and three weeks during the run of the show. Conveniently he was able to sublet an apartment from a friend in a neighborhood he likes in Brooklyn, where he once lived.
“It is difficult to know how good a play is when you are acting in it,” Mr. Kann said, “but everyone seemed to like it. The play was well received. It got a very nice review in The New York Times. Hopefully it’s got some legs and will move on to another theater.” It ran from October 10 to 27.
He said “Kansas City Swing” was a lot of fun to be in because the other actors were so good to work with. “It’s been a fun ride and it has been great to be there from the beginning. I hope it keeps going,” he said. “Robert Karma Robinson, the actor who plays the main character, Satchel Paige, is a good friend of mine. We were able to play off of our own personal relationship. It made it very easy. Plus he is a wonderful actor to work with.”
Mr. Kann, who is 35, grew up in Vineyard Haven. He attended the Tisbury School and spent two years at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School before enrolling in Simon’s Rock College, a school with a program specifically for high school juniors and seniors who are ready for college, in Great Barrington. He earned a BA with honors in theater presentation. He also studied acting with Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, worked with the “Full Circle” play ensemble at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and was in the “War and Peace” grenadier ensemble at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Mr. Kann developed his chops working in dozens of shows at The Vineyard Playhouse. He has worked with the The Fabulists, a summertime improvisational children’s show, and is the perennial favorite in The Playhouse’s Christmas plays, starring as George Bailey during three different years in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and as the father, Clay Spencer, in “The Homecoming” multiple times.
“Chris is enormously talented, a joy to work with, a stellar human being,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo. “He has always worked in a very professional manner, completely and totally dependable. He has always been a team player with a willingness to try absolutely anything.”
Some of his more memorable parts on the Vineyard were as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and as Oberon and then Peter Quince in two different productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“He was spectacular when he played Tybalt and the Friar in the same production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” Ms. Bruder Munafo said. “Nobody realized it was the same actor.”
Mr. Kann has always shown a willingness to help younger actors, according to Ms. Bruder Munafo. “He was a terrific role model as an instructor with The Playhouse’s Fourth Grade Theater Project,” she said.
Mr. Kann, who plans to continue working as a carpenter because it gives him the latitude to take on theater projects when they come up, has few pretensions about his own fortunes as a professional actor. “I can’t stress this enough: if it wasn’t for The Playhouse and MJ, I would have never had this opportunity,” he said. “The great thing about working at The Playhouse is you get to meet and work with professionals.”